If the game design of 2009’s Velvet Assassin were half as interesting as its history, I might be able to bring myself to play beyond the first mission. Velvet Assassin is loosely based on the story of Violette Szabo, a Parisian-born, British-educated woman who enlisted in the elite Special Operations Executive after her husband died in the Second World War. Although the game takes substantial liberties with the facts of Szabo’s life, the premise alone makes for a compelling game pitch: still grieving the loss of her husband, Violette devotes herself to sabotage and subterfuge behind enemy lines.
Velvet Assassin wastes this rich history on a clunky, tired game. The Metacritic average for the game settled at a failing grade: fifty-six out of one hundred. But, having played and enjoyed some poorly-reviewed games, I decided to take my chances. By the end of the first full mission, I was ready to watch the rest of the game on YouTube. Suffice it to say that Velvet Assassin is a frustrating and thoroughly uninteresting experience.
But this game’s story deserves “AAA” treatment. Consider all that it has to offer from a back-of-the-box perspective: a compelling female character with strong motivations, a well-known historical setting (World War II), and a delicious mixture of stealth, deception and demolition. Despite this strong premise, Velvet Assassin didn’t get picked up by Electronic Arts or Activision or Ubisoft; it was produced by a team of “about 35 people” (according to a developer interview) and published by Southpeak Interactive. With those financial limitations in mind, it’s a miracle that Velvet Assassin was playable, even if it turned out to be a mediocre game.
The conversation surrounding female lead protagonists in games is louder than ever. When Grand Theft Auto V was announced, podcasters and journalists speculated about the possibility (and the viability) of a female protagonist in a Rockstar game. Could she kill? Could she fit in a GTA story? The inclusion of playable female characters in Gears of War 3 left fans asking if the Gears franchise would ever have a female character in the starring role. And Mitch Dyer at IGN, presumably prompted by the portrayal of Aveline de Grandpré in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, asked Ubisoft if there would ever be a female protagonist in a main entry in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
It is astonishing that, in 2013, the inclusion of female leads in mainstream video game releases is still a faraway dream. Rare games like Tomb Raider and Bayonetta bet big on their female leads, but the discussion surrounding them rarely moves beyond the (de)sexualization of their protagonists. Meanwhile, Grand Theft Auto V will have three protagonists, all of them men. Adding to the trend, Chris Perna from Epic said that it would be “tough to justify” having a female lead in a Gears game given sales expectations. And Ashraf Ismail from Ubisoft told IGN that, when designing the lead character for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, his team “actually never thought, ‘could this be a woman?’”
We’re not just lagging behind as a narrative medium, we’re stubbornly stagnant and we’re risking complete cultural irrelevance as a result. Imagine the absurdity of a novelist saying that it would be “tough to justify” telling a story through the eyes of a female character. And where would film be as a medium if producers never even considered casting female leads? Alien was made in 1979 and went on to earn back ten times its budget at the box office. But, in 2013, video game developers are still trotting out the same tired excuses for failing to change the representational landscape of the medium.
With respect to games set in historical contexts, we can’t rely on the excuse that women did not participate meaningfully in major world events. When he was questioned about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Ashraf Ismail relayed that, while “there were a few famous women pirates,” the phenomenon “wasn’t common” and they “didn’t want that element to be a detail people got stuck in.” But good historical fiction is precisely about highlighting the uncommon, the exceptional and the rare. If a team of thirty-five people can locate and research Violette Szabo for Velvet Assassin, then surely the veritable army of developers at Ubisoft can find an interesting female pirate for their game (someone like Anne Bonny or, if they could sensitively handle a nuanced gender presentation, someone like Mary Read).
It’s also becoming increasingly harder to believe that a publisher like Epic Games could not market a successful game with a female star. Gears of War 3 sold over three million copies in its first week. And, according to VGChartz, the franchise has shipped over seventeen million units to date. Gears is one of the most popular and beloved series of games for an entire generation of players. Presuming that the quality of the Gears games remains constant, does Epic really believe that there are players out there who would refuse to buy the next entry in the series if a bulky, rectangular woman were on the front of the box instead of a bulky, rectangular man? And, if so, are those players worth holding onto? If anyone is poised to forge new ground for the mainstream of our medium in a forceful and highly visible way, it’s a powerhouse studio like Epic.
But as long as large publishers continue to craft characters based on the whims of the most narrow-minded and reactionary portion of their playerbase, the medium at large is going nowhere. The best we can hope for, under the current way of doing business, is a big-budget game like Spec Ops: The Line which at least attempts to approach the subject of war in a nuanced way. If mainstream developers finally manage, after all these years, to produce the perfect masculine war story, what will be left for them to create? What large swaths of human history and experience are being left behind?
I have my own faraway dream for the portrayal of women in video games. If mainstream games can start to explore some new mechanical territory (something besides object collision which, as Ian Bogost pointed out to me on a panel we were on together last year, is the dominant mechanic of virtually all mainstream games), then they might be able to tell stories about spheres of human life that aren’t wartime violence. Indie game developers have been thriving in this experimental space with incredibly scarce resources.
But imagine what would happen if mainstream developers started to explore new frontiers beyond bullets hitting people. In this hypothetical new era of game development, there would be even more female historical figures available for developers to incorporate into their lavish fictions. There would be more games like L.A. Noire, in which conversations can be just as suspenseful as shootouts. The experiences of women and other underrepresented groups of people could finally be incorporated into the medium in a meaningful way. We could produce serious cultural texts that explore the diversity of human experience, instead of rehashing Apocalypse Now, ad infinitum.
But, for now, I would settle for a lady pirate in Assassin’s Creed and a female Gear on the front of the box. It’s time for mainstream developers to stop making excuses and start having some aspirations. We pride ourselves on being a young but fast-moving medium. Let’s kick it into high gear and give Lara Croft some company in the world of leading ladies.